China Accused of Practicing Racial Discrimination by United Nations Watchdog Body
Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee

China’s aggressive efforts to position itself as a global leader recently came under challenge at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the global watch dog on racial discrimination. CERD expressed serious concern over China’s mass internment of ethnic Uyghur’s and restrictions on their religious freedoms, terming these measures as a ‘violation’ of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a rare phenomenon for a permanent member of the Security Council to be indicted in this manner.

What is CERD? Following the birth of the United Nations and in the background of apartheid in South Africa and practice of racial discrimination worldwide, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed on 20th November 1963, a Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It was subsequently adopted as a Treaty (ICERD) in 1965. Its Article 1 proclaims: “Discrimination between human beings on the ground of race, colour or ethnic origin is an offence to human dignity and shall be condemned as a denial of the principles of the UN Charter.” Post apartheid and with the end of the Cold War, the Convention had a major impact in monitoring institutionalised cases of racial discrimination practised by State Parties.

The Convention has virtual universal acceptance. Compliance by States Parties is monitored by the Committee on the CERD. CERD consists of 18 independent human rights experts from different States Parties, elected for four-year terms. States Parties are required to submit reports within a stipulated time frame detailing steps they have taken to eliminate racial discrimination. The CERD examines each report and then produces recommendations for each State in question.

At its recently concluded session in August 18, China’s report was criticised by several members. This was China’s first report to CERD since 2009. In its examination of China’s adherence to the Convention, the CERD Vice-Chair Gay McDougall expressed "deep concern" at reports that China “has turned the [Xinjiang] Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy” in the name of eradicating “religious extremism” and “maintaining social stability.” McDougall cited credible reports which suggest that as many as 1.1 million people are, or have been, detained in the ‘political re-education camps’ which equates to 10-11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region, while another 2.2 million people are being forced to attend ‘open re-education camps’ which require daily indoctrination sessions but allow attendees to return home in the evening. Another panel member, Fatima-Binta Dah, questioned Chinese representatives about restrictions on religion in the region, asking “what legal protection exists for Uyghur’s to practice their religion.”

Leading up to the meeting, there had been wide-spread media reports about China’s detention of its minorities including Uyghur’s in political re-education camps, reminiscent of days of the Gulag. Alarming reports of pervasive discrimination, religious repression and cultural suppression resulted in the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group transmitting its concerns to CERD over the treatment of Uyghur’s in China. WUC highlighted China’s political re-education camp network and noted that basic legal rights of Uyghur’s in China, including the right to legal representation, a fair and prompt trial and due processes were virtually non-existent. The Group also highlighted serious restrictions over the religious freedom of Uyghur’s in the name of “de-extremification,” which it termed as a violation of the freedom of expression, association, and movement.

CERD’s assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US congressional committee, and recent testimony in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary and Politburo Member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance”. He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added “to a restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses”.

In its submission to the Committee, Chinese representatives angrily rejected all such allegations, claiming that tough security measures in Xinjiang province were necessary to combat extremism and terrorism but were not intended to discriminate against ethnic or religious minorities. Ma Youqing, Director of China's United Front Work Department, in an oral presentation, told the Committee: "Xinjiang citizens including the Uyghur’s enjoy equal freedoms and rights. There is no arbitrary detention, or lack of freedom of religion and belief." She added that criminals convicted of ‘minor offenses’ had been assigned to "vocational educational and employment training centres with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation. They were not subject to any arbitrary detention or ill treatment there.”

Speaking after China's presentation, Gay McDougall observed: "We have to have more than a denial of allegations," and asked for more evidence from China to counter the claims of rights groups. In a tweet following China's statement, the WUC said China continues to ‘deny reality’ but it cannot continue to hide this crime against humanity. China Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based NGO, said the "body of evidence of arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment is overwhelming."

The reality is that China is a monolithic State of Han Chinese, the ethnic group who make up more than 90% of China’s population. China has never taken kindly to any diversity, especially ethnic. Ill treatment of its restless minorities flowed from these flawed policies. Religion is not the root cause of Uighur unhappiness with Chinese rule. It is the deliberate effort to submerge their identity by settling millions of Han Chinese in the province that was once known as “Chinese Turkestan”.

The results are stark. Only one-fifth of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese in 1950. In 2018, almost half the population are Hans. As in Tibet, this attempt to make the population more “Chinese” stimulated resentment and resistance among the former majority population. The first anti-Chinese violence in Xinjiang began in the late 1990s. The official Chinese response was repression. A vast surveillance apparatus, from facial recognition software to mass DNA collection blankets the province along with mass detention and “re-education” camps. Xinjiang’s 20 million people are only 2 percent of China’s population, but the province accounts for 20 percent of the country’s arrests. China is concerned that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge its grip on Xinjiang, home to 15 percent of its proven oil reserves, 22 percent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the country which also form part of its nuclear arsenal.

Deliberations of CERD concluded on 30th August, 2018 with many unanswered questions by China. Since the allegations are a violation of the spirit of the Convention, responses will need to be given. In view of China’s sensitivity to any form of international criticism of its human rights record, the outcome of this session represents a serious setback to China’s efforts to position itself as a global leader or to challenge the dominance of the West.

(The author is a former senior foreign service officer)

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